Photoessay: Squeezing blood from a stone

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Arches and blue

There are cities and places that never run out of inspiration or material to photograph because of weather, seasons, light, change, or sheer scale – no matter how many times you go back. Then there are cities and places that you exhaust in a day or two. And others that have hidden depths to plumb. And still others where you have to methodically work through all of the not so nice stuff in the hope that you may eventually luck out with good light and stumble upon some little interesting unknown vignette on the day you happen to be out. Perhaps I’m jaded, but Kuala Lumpur falls into the latter category. Despite being tropical, our weather is mostly overcast and hazy; bright, directional light is rare and lasts only a few hours at most – usually when you’re not in a position to make the most of it.

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The expression ‘squeezing blood from a stone’ is apt here: you live and shoot in a place for so long that you feel there’s no more left to give, but once in a while you go out and a little magic happens if you squeeze that little bit harder. These were collected over a period of several months. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a Nikon D810, mostly the 24-120/4VR and processed with Photoshop Workflow II.

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Virtual meetings

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Organic and inorganic recursion

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Balancing flare

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Imaginary flow

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Formerly red

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White block

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Look behind


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Said AZIZI says:

    Hey Ming,

    About the fourth picture titled “Organic and inorganic recursion” and pictures of buildings that are similar to it, do you usually shoot from the ground and you apply the perspective corrections in post (Edit, transform) or you take picture from other higher building to achieve that perspective control ?

    Thank you so much !

  2. Jorge balarin. says:

    Thanks for the wonderful photos.

  3. Here’s hoping you continue to have the desire to continue squeezing blood from KL’s stones. Really enjoy “arches and blue” and the contrasting geometric shapes of “look behind”

  4. Sean Quigley says:

    The Arches is a great, great capture Ming.

  5. I would never in a million years thought there was a picture waiting to be set free in “Imaginary Flow”. Simply lovely!
    I notice you don’t often include wildlife* in your images. It would be fascinating to see your renditions of animals and architecture. *Reference bears don’t count 😉

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Finding the essence, seing it … and catching it!
    I find them all exquisite!

    (On a side line, “Planes” seems to me to be a tricky one to compose. I very much like your solution with one of the lines exiting precisely in a corner – something I find usually doesn’t work.)

    • Thanks Kristian. ‘Planes’ was tricky; you need multiple lines exiting the corners, otherwise one corner will tend to be too dominant.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes, I did notice that several lines exit close to corners, but only one *precisely* (upper left).
        And then not the more dominant one just below it, which, I think, hadn’t worked as well.
        (I often find that lines precisely through corners don’t work very well.)

        • I think the lower one is actually less dominant because of lower luminance/contrast – it isn’t as obvious for deliberate structural/progression reasons…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Maybe we speak of different lines?
            ( I mean the upper edge of the topmost row of windows,
            touching the left frame about half the width of the black border below the upper left corner.
            I find it a bit more visible than the top edge of the building. ?.)

            • No, we’re talking about the same windows, I think. The dark bottom/top wedges cancel out and balance off. Could there be a screen brightness/gamma difference at work?

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                ( Sorry I’m late, now i-net again.)
                To contrast :
                On my Nexus 7
                the top edge of the left building (the more “important” of these two lines)
                contrasts less to the sky
                than the dark line (in the shade?) between the narrow strip of wall at the top of the building and the uppermost row of windows
                contrasts to its environment.

                ( So my impression is, that you avoid having a very visible line through the (upper left) corner,
                but build this part of the geometry of the composition with the more discreet but more important line precisely through this corner.)

  7. Jeffrey Littell says:

    “Scales” is a magnificent photo! Please do more b & W for those of us who simply love b & w photos. Thanks!!!!!

  8. François Arbour says:

    Beautiful photos. Beautiful complex composition. Great work, very inspiring.

  9. I like your writings Ming, but modern city buildings no matter what camera,lens,light,philosophy or angle are just so boring followed closely by trees.

    • If you look at the archives you’ll actually see I shoot a far greater variety of subjects, and these are in the minority. Yet only a negative comment? That’s not very fair… 🙂

  10. These are all so amazing!!

  11. John Nicholson says:

    Like your blood – blue, grey, white, yellow – and red!

  12. Ming, I think these photos are among your best work. I am particularly fond the first one. I am fortunate enough to live in Chicago and this is a fine city for architectural photography. I think the longer you shoot in a particular city, the more you peel back the layers and find interesting secondary locations and opportunities for creative photographs.

  13. Much enjoy these images and their abstract qualities as mingled planes. A similar feel to an overcast day among the modern buildings in the City of London. Here in lil ‘old England good strong light can be so fleeting in winter (as distinct from cloud-covered gloom) that it’s often a question of grab and go or you’ll miss it, but on a crisp, clear winter day the light is glorious 🙂

    • Thanks. Yes, I’ve often felt the same way about London: winter is really depressing until you get that one bluebird day, and then it’s as though the photography gods are giving you all of your karma at once!

  14. I relate strongly to this one. I live in Nagoya, which is one of Japan’s biggest cities, and I’ve been here for around seven years. I never get tired of it, and I carry a camera everywhere. And of course when I head up to Tokyo…well, I’m fairly much convinced that you could live your entire life there and never get tired of it – and that applies to more than just the photographic aspect.

    I wonder if this isn’t part of the attraction of street photography. Buildings are always there unless demolished or given a makeover, but people are different every day.

    That being said, I wonder if it is not the sign of maturity as a photographer to not care where you are because you know you’ll find something interesting even if it’s a place you know inside-out. Far easier said than done, though!

    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Josh Waitzkin, but he’s an American who was a chess prodigy and who is fascinated by the learning process. One of his ideas is what he calls “making smaller circles”, which means that as you get better and better at something, the improvements you make become smaller and subtler each time, to the extent that the average practitioner can’t even see them. For photographers this is probably represented by being able to find the subtlest difference in a scene which you’ve shot time and time again. After all, most of us are going to live in one place for a certain period of time, so we pretty much have no choice but to improve our perceptual skills. Going to a new place is almost too easy : we are overwhelmed with stimuli, and consequently we shoot better. I know that I do when I go somewhere new. The real challenge is doing it with a place you know well…

    • “That being said, I wonder if it is not the sign of maturity as a photographer to not care where you are because you know you’ll find something interesting even if it’s a place you know inside-out. Far easier said than done, though!”

      Good question. It’s often said that locals get much better images than visitors because they get to see more faces of a place, and are far more likely to be there on the round when something interesting is happening. But I think it’s still easy to reach saturation if you shoot intensely. My mark of maturity is being able to get the image almost all of the time regardless of the circumstances…or am I confusing that with professionalism?

      • I think there are two sides to it. Locals, of course, have the advantage of familiarity and knowing where the best spots are. The other side of that, of course, is that tourists / visitors see the place with “beginner’s mind” (to use a Zen phrase) and thus see things which the locals have long since taken for granted. The real skill is to see a place which you know intimately as if you were seeing it for the first time!

        • The “beginner’s mind” idea you cite appears to be akin to the idea I first learned from Canadian photographer, Freeman Petersen of ‘removing labels’ from familiar people/places/things and seeing them from a totally fresh perspective.

          • I’m really curious what it’d be like to perceive the world as a child or baby again – objects have no obvious function or associated preconceptions; rules aren’t necessarily fixed or conscious…and yes, my daughter gets a camera as soon as she can operate one. 😉

            • As I recall from memory, in executing the “removing labels’ idea, Freeman Patterson (who I mistakingly called ‘Freeman Petersen’ in the previous post) once moved in really close with his Minolta 100:2.8 macro lens to highlight the handle of a plain glass mug. This rendered the more distant colored utensils as psychedelic colored blurs, making the whole image reminiscent of a multicolored discotheque rather than the dish rack of his kitchen.

              Another striking image, which I believed served as the cover for the first edition of his book, “Photography and the Art of Seeing”, was when Patterson employed his 100:2.8 macro on a single blade of tall grass, dramatically lit by the setting sun. Talk about seeing sheer beauty in the most ordinary thing!!!, that common blade was transformed by magnified macro viewpoint into a spectacular unworldly delight!

              • Not surprising. The ‘hump’ that has to be overcome is a combined one of expectation and imagination: you need to set aside preconceptions of subject to imagine what could be, and then actually bother to experiment to see if that is actually the case…

  15. Fantastic!



  16. David Ralph says:

    No need to get back. But, Kuala Lumpur seems to have far more than its fair share of dramatic, modern architecture, ready to reflect varying qualities of light. Your photographs have demonstrated those attributes very well ever since you started the blog.

    • Thanks. It does, but one can tire of eating steak every day…and it’s probably not very healthy, either. 😉

      • Ming, Image #1 is a real mix of ancient and modern, with the modern just perceptible in the background. Wonderful shot. I just love the symmetry.

        Your steak allusion is interesting. Many years ago a US photographer based in California had “set up shop” as it were, in the UK for a couple of years and he wrote of his experiences here. What struck him was, whilst he could get sunshine virtually all the year round back in his home state, in England he got snow, rain, clouds, hot days and freezing days and anything in between, oh and some sunshine. It was the huge changeability of the weather that so impressed him. Sometimes even experiencing almost four seasons in one week. :D)

        • Thanks Terry.

          There are places in the world you get all four seasons in one day; it makes outdoor photography challenging. Though I suspect four seasons in a week is more problematic as no planning can be done; at least if it’s changing quickly you can wait for an hour or two. Clients seldom believe in the need for weather days until the weather really hits…

  17. Ming, have you ever seen these groups, urban explorers . . .

    Fascinating stuff. I do if whenever I’ve got a new urban regeneration project, photograph the places before we demolish them.

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